The concept of eschatology differentiates the three great religions of the West from the so-called natural religions, which develop one or another form of “myth of the eternal return.” Judaism, Christianity and Islam share instead a doctrine about the final judgment and the end of the world, that is, about the last things that would equate them in appearance to a straight line with a beginning and an end against the circularity of the others doctrines. However, this end of the world of Western character returns paradoxically again and again: the world never ends completely and, once the apocalyptic or millenarian fires are extinguished, after a variable period of time the embers come back on. In the words of Derrida, “the end is approaching but the apocalypse is long lasting”
From this somewhat ironic finding (the irony of an end that is not an end) it may be more understandable that certain authors deal with a subject normally associated with a pessimistic or moralizing mood with a lighter mood.
With his story “El Gran Serafin” (1967) Bioy Casares addresses the topic of the end of the world with a considerable dose of humor.
The story of Bioy Casares also appears inscribed in the symbolic tradition of Judeo-Christian eschatology since its title, which for the unsuspecting reader only refers to a category of angels but whose etymology appears associated with fire and also snakes.
The great seraph, it is Lucifer, who through an open hole in the surface has left the bowels of the earth where he was confined since his fall.
The protagonist, Alfonso Álvarez, a history teacher in a high school, accepts the advice of taking vacations in an unknown seaside resort on the coast of Buenos Aires called San Jorge del Mar. The English buccaneer inn, in charge of the temperamental Madame Medor, is reveals full of guests no less picturesque than the patron, her daughter and her German maid Hilda. However, the climate of sainete that prevails in the inn, greatly favored by the figure of Medor, is opposed to growing and disturbing signs: the sulphurous and hot water that replaces drinking water; the permanent smell of sulfur that emerges from a well that has opened only near the beach; the discovery in this well of a pair huge wings of black plumage and, when it has already been recognized that it is the end of the world, the still and stagnant sea, the violet sky, the infinite perspective of the beach full of dead fish in the sand, flocks of uncontrolled birds, human migrations to Mediterranean areas.
The topic of the end of the world is displayed in this story as a backdrop rather than as a true theme.
It is significant that the difficulty of believing in the end of the world is widely narrated in “The Great Seraph” towards the end of the story: “Nobody here takes the end of the world seriously,” Álvarez protests, and later says Father Bellod (character of the work) “is a thing in which no one intimately believes.” In fact, narrative tension occurs between most of the characters, who intends to ignore the signs and make a “normal life”, and Alvarez who does not subscribe to pretend.
The coastal location chosen for the action of the story favors the presence of apocalyptic signs associated with the waters. As soon as he arrives, the teacher wants to cool down and notices that the tap water comes out hot. “Now all the water turned hot,” the maid clarifies. On his first excursion to the beach he notes that “the strange sea smell increased.” At lunch the owner must explain to those who want to drink water that “Now it comes out thermal. It’s a strong thing, you have to get used to it, rich in sulphurous salts, I like it, ”to which a diner mutters to himself that he finds it rotten rather than thermal. For the afternoon, the patron has organized a walk along the beach to see the “jets of water, legitimate geysers” that sprout from the open pit in the sand. Álvarez notes when leaving in the afternoon that “the sea breeze brought a rotten smell”.
Although irony is a very characteristic feature of Bioy Casares’ style in almost all of his writing, here he not only records the text through the reactions of the characters, but is explicitly mentioned: “Do not lose your composure [says Lynch, one of the clients of the inn] Composure? The word resulting ironic, my friend ”Álvarez answers. But even more ironic, and wrapping the entire text, resulting in an atheist writer like Bioy Casares, choose elements and images of a religious apocalypse. The presence of an image as naive as black wings and feathers is thus charged with a particular irony.